During the tender moments of levity amongst the three women who live in a bullet riddled shanty, laughs are shared and bonding is cemented. And yet, within multiple instances, the women stop dead in their tracks and merely stare into the abyss, eyes panning slowly and precisely across the landscape.
It is a punishing tableau. The moments where an audience can breathe easily are fleeting, danger lurking in the air at every turn. A deed must be done by the woman who is summoned, and when that deed is complete, the chosen one returns to the shared hut, takes a rag and moves it underneath her dress, cleaning the stench of their shared spouse in the most literal and figurative sense.
The loss of innocence, the callousness of resignation, and the vision of stone cold pragmatism that comes with a kind of perverse status is what the audience lives with while witnessing the three heroines of the powerful “Eclipsed,” playing through March 19th at the Curran Theatre.
The play, written with searing passion by Danai Gurira and directed with unsettling and critical conviction by Liesl Tommy, explores the lives of the three women who live together, women who have been kidnapped by and enslaved to the Liberian resistance group’s commanding officer, or C.O. in the early 2000’s at the end of the Second Liberian Civil War. This is a man who has sex with each of the women whenever he wants. Those women include Wife #1 (a radiant Stacey Sargeant), who has settled into this life and has found purpose by watching over the other women. Wife #3 (a warm turn by Joniece Abbott-Pratt) works hard within the confines to create some normalcy yet is also the most institutionalized of the women.
And there is the youngest of the group, the 15-year-old “Girl” (the wonderful Ayesha Jordan), who does not yet have the strength to leave, but is intrigued by the perfectly done Wife #2 (a powerful Adeola Role), who now spends her time as a rebel fighter, giving her access to all of the amenities of western life.
Tommy’s work is settled beautifully in devastated African countries, and she was masterful back in 2011 at Berkeley Rep directing the searing and heartbreaking play “Ruined.” Her work here moves at a unique pace, and does much to share with the audience a sense that these women, like many among them, live underneath a sword of Damocles. The C.O. hovers over them much like the dangerous Pepe in Federico Garcia Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba.” It is a character unseen to the audience, but is felt every time Wife #1 and #3 hide the innocent young “Girl” underneath a plastic tub, the Girl painfully wearing a worn out t-shirt featuring the cartoon “The Rugrats,” a reminder of her lost childhood.
Where this play reaches maximum devastation is when the peace worker character of Rita (Akosua Busia), comes and meets with Wife #1 and asks her a simple question. It’s a question laughed off as unimportant or trivial by a shook #1, but Rita continues to thunder at her, finally getting the answer in the form of a whisper.
It is powerful theatre, this moment here. Rita even goes a bit further, writing that answer on the dirt with a stick. Look at how #1 just stares at the dirt, overwhelmed by what is reflecting back. For women whose identities are limited to sex slaves or rebel fighters, for one fleeting second, #1 is reminded of the possibilities that may exist outside the commands of the C.O.
The world of the play is created beautifully, with Clint Ramos’ fabulous costume and scenic design. The costumes effectively brought forth the shifts within the story, and the evolution of each character.
Throughout this play, moments of devastation were at every turn, yet few moments were more powerful than the end of the piece. It’s not scripted, but it’s all consuming, something every audience member is a part of. And the audience needs to do one very important thing before they leave:
Say her name.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
SF Curran Presents “Eclipsed”
Written by Danai Gurira
Directed by Liesl Tommy
The Word: A searing and unflinching piece of theatre, beautifully written and directed.
Stars: 5 out of 5
The Curran Theatre
450 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Through March 19th
Tickets range from $29 – $140
For tickets, call (415) 358-1220 or visit www.sfcurran.com